Last weekend, I went to Austin for the first time. Of course, I was unable to resist trying out yet another travel-related startup in the process. I’ve already got a good thing going on my drive to and from SFO with DriveNow, I breeze through security with TSA Precheck (While I participate in the program, I don’t totally agree with it. For one thing, I’ve been classified as not so dangerous that I need a full body scan or pat-down, but still shady enough that I should still be checked for metal.), and I comfortably fly Virgin America (or at least get upgraded on a legacy carrier) when possible. I thought that I had my rental car experience figured out as well by signing up for Avis Preferred (as well as the rewards programs for a few others), which in most locations allows you to have a more efficient rental experience. It turns out, there’s an even better way: Silvercar.

Silvercar is a car rental company. There are a few things that make it a little different than the average car rental company, and most of their advantages center around simplicity.

The only car that you can get with Silvercar is an Audi A4. You don’t even pick the color—they’re all silver. I like this, because I never know what I’m going to get with the other car rental companies. I usually get “upgraded” to a random SUV. The A4 is a comfortable, good-looking car. I had fun driving it.

You can reserve a car on their website or via their app. I used the website. It’s quick and easy, and there aren’t 20 screens of upselling.

When we landed in Austin, I opened up the app, and tapped a button which loaded up a text message containing my reservation number to send to Silvercar. A few minutes after texting them, they called me and told me where to wait outside. They showed up a few minutes later in a silver A4, checked my license and credit card (only done for first-time drivers) and drove us to the off-airport rental facility. There, while one employee transferred our luggage into the rental car, the other showed us how everything worked. Scanning a QR code with the app unlocked the doors. From there, he showed us an overview of the computer system, such as how to navigate, use the radio, and pair my phone. It is nice to have Bluetooth, but for whatever reason, Silvercar seems to be really excited about it. At some locations, you don’t even have to go through all of that; you can just walk right up to your car, scan, and go. In any case, I was just happy that I didn’t have to wait in line at a counter or wait for a bus.

When we picked the car up, they asked us to give them a call when we were on our way back to the airport since we were returning on Sunday, which is a busy day. On Sunday, we called and let them know that we were on our way. I’m not sure how necessary that was. When we arrived, one of the employees hopped in the driver’s seat and drove us to the curbside drop-off area. We got out, he handed us our bags, and that was it. I received a receipt via email a few minutes later.

When I first looked into Silvercar, I thought that they had standard pricing, with a set weekday rate and weekend rate, as the rates were published prominently on their homepage. However, it looks like the prices do fluctuate like any other company. They could really win me over if they had a more stable rate (I was pretty annoyed to be hit with a ridiculous demand-based rate at our hotel, for example), but it’s not like you don’t get a quote before you make the reservation. Update on October 1, 2013: Silvercar sent me a note to clarify that they do have stable rates of $89 per day on weekdays (Monday – Thursday) and $59 per day on weekends (Friday – Sunday). If your reservation includes both weekdays and weekend days, they’ll display the average daily rate of your reservation.

They do still have a win with the fuel pricing, though. Rather than a bunch of confusing fuel options, you can either return the car full or not. If the tank isn’t full, they’ll top it off, charge you the local market rate for gas, plus a $5 fee. On my rental I used 3.6 gallons of gas, so I paid $13.93 ($3.59*3.6 + $5) and didn’t have to hunt around for a gas station on the way to the airport.

There are plenty of things that Silvercar doesn’t charge for at all, that tend to be add-ons with other rental companies. They don’t charge extra fees for electronic tolls; they’ll simply charge whatever the actual toll amount was. Even though everyone just navigates with their phones anyway, the car comes with an included navigation system. The car has free WiFi, but we didn’t use it. Though I didn’t try this, there’s no cost to add a driver to the reservation, and it’s super-easy. I had the opposite experience a year ago with Avis. When we went up to the counter to add the driver, the guy first informed us: “Well, you can, but it’s $13 extra per day.” Ok… we thought that was annoying, but had to do it since I wouldn’t be returning the car, and asked to add a driver. The agent warned: “You’ll have to fill out a form.” He then paused to see if, after we already agreed on the price, we would be okay with doing some paperwork. We then found out why he warned us. It took probably 10-15 long minutes to make that one change: filling out a paper form, having the agent do who-knows-what on an ancient computer, and finally receiving a new copy of the agreement printed with a dot-matrix printer. At least it wasn’t like the time that they refused to add someone as a driver on another reservation over the phone (which Silvercar is happy to do), affecting my family’s travel plans. This industry deserves to be disrupted.

The rough edges
Overall, using Silvercar was a great experience, and I only have a few pieces of feedback to improve it.

When I first tried to alert Silvercar that we had arrived, I tried to send the text message via Google Voice. Unfortunately, the app didn’t pass along the message content to Google Voice, so I had to do it via a standard text. It’d be nice if the app worked with Google Voice or didn’t rely on SMS at all.

When we were ready to return the car, I tapped the button on the app to navigate back to the rental car location using Google Maps. We were taken to an office park near the airport. The app needs to be updated with the correct address. We ended up using the built-in Audi navigation system to get to the right place. The Audi system definitely needs some work. The ordering of upcoming turns read from bottom to top (the next turn was at the bottom of the list), which made it confusing when preparing for the next turn. The distance units were incorrect, as it’d warn of turns coming up in 200 yards, that were actually only 200 feet away, adding to the confusion.

There has been an app update since I used it, and Silvercar’s support staff did say my feedback would go to the right department, so it’s possible that those bugs have already been fixed.

Finally, when we got out of the car at the curb and the employee helped us with our bags, there was that strange feeling that maybe I was supposed to tip (I didn’t), and I hate the ambiguity of that. If we weren’t supposed to tip, it’d be nice if Silvercar were upfront about it. And if a tip was expected, they should change that, either by including it in the standard rate or offering it as an option, like “If you give me a dollar, I’ll carry your bag for you.” You know, like any other transaction. Based on the fact that it’s a newer company and I’ve never had to tip in any other rental car situation, I’m assuming that it was just me being paranoid and that there was no expectation of a gratuity.

Would I use it again?
Yes, absolutely. Silvercar is way better than a standard rental car company. They’re only in a few cities right now, but if you’re lucky enough to be renting a car in Dallas, Austin, Houston, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, check out Silvercar.

Trying out startups when I travel continues to be fun. I even stumbled across another car-sharing service (that according to Wikipedia has actually been operating since 2008) while walking around Austin. Next up: BlackJet? I wish. On the non-travel front, I was hoping to write about how Prim has changed my life. I did try it out, and I got really used to not having to do laundry. Unfortunately, after a month and a half of using the service, one of the co-founders emailed me and let me know that the service was no longer available in my area “due to low user density.” Now, after experiencing life with Prim, it feels like doing laundry takes forever. Whenever I get a glimpse of how much better things can be, I wish the future would just hurry up and get here. Fortunately, now is pretty good too.

I don’t wait in line at the airport

I was asked tonight about how I skip lines in airports, so I figured it’d be worth publishing a blog post about it. As a bit of background, I’m a frequent flier, and I don’t like to wait in line. I’ve been known to pass on free food because there was a queue. I hardly ever go through tolls or into San Francisco, but I have a FastTrak tag and a Clipper card. I ordered a passport card just because I thought it looked cool. I’m a little weird.

I skip lines via multiple programs. Here are my impressions of Clear, TSA Pre, and the Global Entry program. Keep in mind that this is just from a sample size of a single experience for each service, and they’re still relatively new.


The experience
I recently used this at SFO’s international terminal. At the time, the regular line was not very long, but they only had one lane open and it wasn’t moving quickly. I was traveling with a group, so I wasn’t planning on taking advantage of Clear for this trip, but when we realized that we were risking not having enough time to grab breakfast before boarding, I popped over to the Clear lane. The procedure was really easy at this point. There was nobody else in line, so I just handed over my card to the friendly agent, who scanned my boarding pass, card, and fingerprint, and then escorted me past the TSA agent who was checking IDs, putting me right at the front of the line for the rest of the usual TSA screening process. The Clear process took less than a minute. I still had to take off my shoes, take my laptops out of my bag, take my jacket off, and choose between the body scan or pat-down. But, I was able to get through the entire checkpoint in just a handful of minutes and spent my time waiting in line for breakfast while my friends waited in the TSA line, allowing us to eat before boarding the plane, which was promptly delayed.

Disadvantages vs. TSA PreCheck

  • Costs money
  • Doesn’t get you out of any of the inconvenient procedures.

Advantages over TSA PreCheck

  • Easy enrollment. No frequent flyer status or extensive application required.

How to get it
Sign up online, pay money ($179/year without any discounts; the link I just dropped has my referral code and gets you 1 free month), then visit an enrollment center (at the airport) to get your picture and fingerprints taken. They’ll then mail you your card, so you can’t use the service right away, but the entire enrollment process is pretty painless.


The experience
This was confusing as a first-timer. I thought that there would be an indication on my boarding pass if I was eligible for the PreCheck lane, but there was none. It appears that one don’t know if they’re eligible for that lane until the boarding pass is scanned. Fortunately, there was no line to get the boarding pass scanned. Once the agent scanned my boarding pass and checked my ID, I was waved on to a magical experience compared to what most TSA checks have become. I didn’t have to take off my shoes. I didn’t have to take off my jacket. I didn’t have to take my laptops or liquids out of my bag. Actually, I’m not sure if the not taking liquids out had anything to do with it; I always forget to take my liquids out, and they almost never pull my bag.

All I had to do was drop my bags on the belt, and then walk through a metal detector. That was it. It was so fast and comfortable, and better than any current screening process that I’ve been through recently in the world (includes the UK, Ireland, Germany, and India). There was no backlog of people waiting for the invasive body scanner which requires each passenger to stand still in for several seconds, and then wait several more seconds for a result. I didn’t take up my usual huge amount of space on the conveyor belt with three bins and two bags.

Disadvantage vs. Clear

  • Enrollment requires flying a lot or filling out an extensive application.

Advantages over Clear

  • Free(ish)
  • No body scan or patdown
  • Keep your shoes on
  • Keep your jacket on
  • Keep your laptop in the bag

How to get it
There are a couple of ways. The “free” way is to become a frequent flyer on a participating airline (I’m in it via US Airways) and they’ll give you an option to opt-in to the program. It doesn’t cost anything. When you fly on that airline, they’ll automatically send the right data to the TSA. The other way, which doesn’t limit you to a particular airline or require status, is to enroll in a Trusted Traveler program, which gives you a number that you can enter in that “Known traveler” field that you may have seen and wondered about during the booking process. This route is a bit more of a burden and costs money, but I’ve found it to be worth it as a member of the Global Entry program, which I’ll describe below.

Global Entry

This program lets you skip the immigration line when entering the United States. If you’ve traveled abroad before you know that coming back into the US can mean waiting in line for an hour, and this program reduces the process to just about a minute. What you do is simply get off the plane, and head towards one of the automated Global Entry kiosks. The kiosks are located by the crew lines, so just follow a pilot or flight attendant. You don’t even need to fill out a landing card, and I’ve never seen a line at the kiosks. There, you scan your passport and fingerprints, and answer a few questions on a touchscreen, essentially answering the questions on the landing card (anything to declare?) without having to enter in your passport number, etc. The machine provides a printout, and you then walk right past the border patrol officers stamping passports (you bypass them completely) and straight to the customs officer who takes the piece of paper and waves you in. So you miss out on getting a re-entry stamp, but it’s a nice, fast process, and only takes a couple of minutes. When I was sick on my way back from India and couldn’t have possibly waited in line for more than 20 minutes without having to abort, I found signing up for this program to be the smartest decision I made about that trip.

How to get it
Go to Meet the eligibility requirements, fill out a pretty long background check (where you’ve lived, etc.), and pay $100. After your application is approved, you need to schedule an “interview,” (don’t worry, it’s not an interrogation) and then go to an enrollment center in person to be fingerprinted and photographed. It’s honestly a bit of a cumbersome process, but sometimes after a long international flight all you want to do is get home as fast as possible. It was definitely worth it for me. If you can get a few friends together at your office, you may be able to have the enrollment officers visit your workplace so you don’t have to travel for the in-person enrollment steps.


As an individual traveler, I liked being able to have a briefer, less intrusive, and less cumbersome screening process. For me, the pre-work was worth it for a smoother travel experience. Some people may not feel comfortable with the fingerprint and iris imaging, but as a geek I actually enjoyed the novelty factor. The funny thing is that the privatized, more expensive Clear service appears to have the least value-add, but until all airports get TSA PreCheck, I’ll probably remain a member if my travel schedule continues at its current rate of activity.

I’m not fully convinced this is all necessary for security, but I’m not an expert so I’ll try not to be an armchair security guru. I do see how both Clear and the Global Entry program do a better job of verifying identity, since they use biometrics. The difference in screening processes for TSA PreCheck vs. the regular process is something I’m still not able to completely justify, but if I can find my way into the less intrusive process, I’ll take it.

Now who wants a blog post about how I get free upgrades on 50% of my domestic flights? (It’s on US Airways, so don’t get too jealous.)


The following is a recent email exchange between me and my manager. He’s so understanding about my interests!

From: Me
I caught a bug this weekend and I’m trying to figure out what it is. I’ll be in late today.

From: Mr. Manager
Don’t worry about coming in! You should see a doctor.

From: Me
Thanks for understanding! I just came back from an entomologist. She says it’s a Lichnanthe albopilosa.

From: Mr. Manager
Oh, wow. How are you feeling?

From: Me
Well, she said it’s pretty rare to find one where I did, so that’s exciting. Should be dead soon. Have  great weekend!

On September 11, 2001

I’ve never written this down before or even really talked much about it, but I still remember many details from that day. I’m recording them now.

It was a Tuesday. I was a senior in high school, sitting in the Media Lab, since I didn’t have a class during the first period. Another student in the room was on the internet and saw that a news site (I think it was CNN) was reporting a plane crash at the World Trade Center. We went into the next room and turned on the TV. At the time, they were reporting that a small plane had crashed into one of the towers. It sounded like it was an accident.

I had brought my Spanish homework into the room, and was looking down at my book doing work that was due later that day. The news station had live audio from a woman in New York who was describing what she saw via telephone, with a live shot of the towers on the screen. I heard her scream, and looked up at the TV when the second plane, which was a large jet, hit. We instantly knew that it wasn’t an accident.

I called my mom and told her to turn on the TV. She already had it on. She wasn’t sure where my uncle (her brother) worked in New York. I sent him an email to see if he was okay. I felt weird asking him that, so I told him I just wanted to confirm that I had his correct email address.

At 9:15 we had to go to a regularly scheduled assembly. I don’t remember what the topic was. As I walked to the theater, I saw other students making their way over there as well, coming from their first class of the day. I remember thinking, “Do they even know?” I presume most of them didn’t; I didn’t hear anyone talking about the news. The assembly started, and I was surprised that no announcement was made beforehand about what had happened. At the end of the assembly, the principal took the mic and told everyone about the morning’s events. This is when I heard about the plane crash at the Pentagon, which happened during the assembly.

Soon after the assembly, I heard that a fourth plane had crashed “near Pittsburgh.” My grandparents lived near Pittsburgh.

The rest of the day was spent getting updates and information. My uncle emailed back saying that he was okay. The crash near Pittsburgh happened in a field. Many major news websites were slow or inaccessible, and the Ukrainian teacher who ran the computer room was reading less-trafficked Russian news sites and translating for us. My dad could see the smoke rising from New York during his commute home from New Jersey.

Just over two weeks later, I went on my first flight after the attacks. At the airport and on the plane, newspapers prominently displayed daily headlines about the attacks. I noticed that a large knife was left unattended just behind the counter of a post-security restaurant. On the plane, the flight attendant quietly asked the passengers in the front row if they would help him in the case that “something should happen.”

Ten years later, I was again in the airport. There was nobody in front of me at the security line. I wasn’t frisked and there was no full body scan. I read some 9/11-related posts on my phone, mixed in with pictures posted by my friends. After we took off, I read, had some wine and a salad, watched Good Will Hunting, and fell asleep. It was a pleasant flight.


I’ve only had three different hairstyles that I can remember. I transitioned to my current hairstyle when I was a teenager, and I remember how it happened. One day, my mom took me to a different stylist instead of my usual barber. I don’t know if she had briefed the stylist on what she wanted for me ahead of time (I’m assuming that she did), but I went and sat in the chair when it was my turn, having no idea what I wanted or what was going to happen. The stylist began asking me questions using terminology that I was completely unfamiliar with, which made me nervous since I didn’t want to sound like an idiot. Fortunately, she phrased all of the questions in yes/no form, such as “Would you like me to do a…,” so I could fake my way though the conversation by confidently answering every question in the affirmative. About 20 minutes later, I looked in the mirror and saw roughly what I’ve been looking at for over a decade. To this day, I still use the same technique of always agreeing to whatever the stylist wants to do.

When I moved out to California, it wasn’t practical for me to go to the same places I went in Pennsylvania (in college I would wait until a trip back to PA to get a haircut), so for the first time I had to actually describe my desired style to someone. I had put off getting a haircut for as long as I could, because haircuts are awkward. When I arrive, I feel stupid when they ask how they can help me, and I say “I want a haircut.” What else could I possibly want? And then the waiting room is awkward, because there’s not really anything to do but pretend to be busy on the phone. Once in the chair, I don’t know where to look. Do I look at myself? The stylist’s face? The scissors? Other customers? And what about talking? Is it cold and unfriendly if I sit there in silence? Do I have to make small talk? Do we talk about hair? And then I always get an itch on my face, but it’s kind of a pain to get my hand out from under the sheet. Do I just wait it out? The whole experience is just horrible.

Since I had let my hair get pretty long before finally going in to get one for the first time on the West Coast, my usual “like this but shorter” wasn’t going to cut it as the style was a bit unclear after several weeks of growth. Anticipating this problem, I dug out my JHU student ID which had made it out to California with me. On the ID is my high school senior portrait, taken at a time when my hair was freshly trimmed the way I liked it. For the first few months, any time I needed a haircut, I brought the ID with me, showed them the picture, and told them to make me look like that. During that time, I picked up the first of three important pieces of information. That fact was the name of my hairstyle. Once when showing the picture to a stylist, he or she described it as “Caesar.” At that point, I was able to stop bringing the photograph with me. There was still some confusion around the length of the hair though. The stylist would often ask me how long it had been since my last haircut. I never had any idea. I don’t even know how long it took me to get to work this morning. This was before the iPhone had been released, so there was not even the possibility of looking up my last check-in. So, I would just tell them, “You won’t cut it too short,” since in many cases they’d leave my hair longer than I preferred. It’s like when I order pancakes and tell the waiter that the chef won’t cook them too much, even if they’re burnt. Finally, I picked up the phrase “finger length” when one stylist used it. So that’s two pieces of information: the style and the length. The final piece of information again has to do with length. One stylist asked me what size length guard  I would like her to use for the clippers on the back and sides. I told her that I didn’t know, but described the length and told her to tell me which size she used, so I could specify it next time. She said, “Oh you guys never remember.” She used size #2, and I haven’t forgotten that. So now, I can confidently walk into any hair salon and confidently say, “I like it Caesar on top, finger length, with #2 clippers on the back and sides.” The only thing that still throws me off is when they ask me if I want it to be rounded or straight in the back. I always answer the same way, “Whatever you think looks good. I don’t have to look at the back of my head. Make something you’d want to look at.”

For the most part, this has worked out pretty well. Except for that technique I developed as a teenager: always saying yes to whatever the stylist asks. A few weeks ago, I went in for a haircut. As the guy was cutting my hair, he asked me if I liked it longer in the front. I had no idea if my hair was usually longer in the front; I figured that perhaps they layered it. Ever since I was very young, I have admitted that I don’t know how this stuff works, and that cutting hair is a special skill. When I was about five years old, I got some scissors and decided to cut my hair. I still remember doing this. I was sitting in the corner of our family room, and, just before I made the cut, I remember thinking to myself, “Should I do this? Is there any special technique to cutting hair? No, you cut it and it gets shorter. I can’t mess this up.” I messed it up. I didn’t cut any of my hair again until a few years later when I randomly decided to cut my eyebrows and eyelashes. I think that one freaked out my mom a little more. My point is that I don’t know about cutting hair. So when the stylist asked me if I wanted it longer in the front, I assumed that I did, and it looked fine. It looked fine until the very end, when he got out some gel, put it in my hair, and spiked up a triangular-shaped portion in the front. It did not look like my normal hairstyle. It looked like something a 14-year-old might ask for if he’s desperately trying to look cool. Of course at this point, there was already gel in the hair, so I assumed that it was too late to do anything about it. I got out of the chair, paid for my haircut, and even left the standard tip. I knew that I had to do something about it though.

Driving back towards my apartment, I kept looking in the mirror. I hated the way it looked. I stopped at Subway on the way, and noticed that the person who helped me, at a location where everyone is usually very friendly, was pretty cold and quiet. He wasn’t mean, but I think he thought I looked like someone who would be a jerk. I would have preferred a mullet at that point, and I almost explained to him what had happened. I didn’t, though, and went back to my apartment. After eating, I immediately headed to the bathroom mirror to figure out a solution. I thought that the best thing to do would be to cut the hair while it was still gelled up, so I would cut it properly to match how the finished product would look. After clearing the raised triangle, I realized that I had cut that area shorter than the rest of my hair. Not wanting to risk an endless series of adjustments or messing things up further, I didn’t cut any of my other hair to compensate. I figured a shorter triangle was better than a spiked triangle, and knowing that my hair fortunately grows quickly, figured I’d just wait it out and within a week or so it would be at the length where the difference wasn’t noticeable. I briefly considered going to another stylist to have things cleaned up, where my plan was to blame the bad haircut on my girlfriend who tried to cut my hair. (It’s not mean if she’s not real!) I didn’t get it fixed, and within a couple of weeks, it was at the point where I couldn’t really notice the difference in length unless I pulled up my hair with my fingers.

Today, I was due for a haircut. I was glad that the bad experience was over, and knew that I should refuse any offers to leave it longer in the front. Shortly into the haircut, the stylist, who was not the one who helped me last time, pulled up the front of my hair and asked, “What happened here?” I pretended that I didn’t hear her. “This area here is really awkward,” she said, “Why is it shorter? What happened?” I didn’t want to admit what I had done, especially since she seemed nearly disgusted by what she was looking at, so I simply said, “I think the last guy misunderstood what I wanted,” which, in a way, is still the truth. The next 15 minutes were spent trying to dodge questions about the situation, such as “You got your hair cut here last time?” and “It was a guy?” Fortunately she didn’t investigate too deeply into who had cut my hair last time, but I’m definitely going to have to avoid that location for several months in case she remembers me and wants to continue her investigation later by asking me to identify the culprit. But she still could not get over what she had seen, and said, “I had to ask because maybe you like it that way. Some people like weird things.”

One of the most awkward parts about all of this was that I knew I would have to blog about it, because I thought the whole situation was hilarious, but I didn’t want to have to explain all that to the stylist. So for one excruciating haircut, I had to fight back the urge to burst out laughing.