Category Archives: Logistics
Last week Alex and I traveled to New Jersey to visit our storage unit and clear out the last of our stuff. People sometimes ask why we got the storage unit in the first place, and all I can say is: it made sense at the time. We were moving to London and we didn’t know how long we would be here. If we hated it (or our visas weren’t renewed) and we moved back to the US after a year or two, it didn’t make sense to either A) ship all our stuff over and then back again, or B) buy entirely new stuff. Plus, we didn’t really have the money for either of those options!
I think that’s probably one of the most crippling problems for young people or those without disposable income: you have just enough money to make stupid decisions. We had enough money to pay the $45/month fee for the storage unit, but not the $3,000 it would have taken to ship all our belongings. (But of course, after five years of paying for the storage unit, we’ve paid out a total of $2,700, with none of our stuff to show for it.)
So that’s why we decided to get a storage unit in the first place. But why did we decide to get one in Howell, NJ, when we lived in Brooklyn? Again, it was all about the money. A storage unit in Brooklyn or Queens, or even out on Long Island, would have been 3 or 4 times more expensive, and we really needed to count our pennies. And since we figured we wouldn’t need to access it very often, it was okay. We chose the place in Howell, NJ largely because it was cheap, but also because it was on a bus route from Manhattan. So if we visited NYC and we didn’t rent a car, we could (theoretically) take a bus down there. It seemed logical at the time, but we failed to consider what we would be DOING with the stuff when we visited: each time we’ve gone through a few boxes to sort/donate/bring stuff back in empty suitcases – which would have been nigh-on-impossible on a bus. So we’ve rented a car (and paid gas and tolls) each time. If you add the price of the car rentals and gas/tolls to our overall storage unit bill, it would skyrocket over that $3,000 mark.
When we first went down to sign-up for the storage unit, we discovered that the second-floor units were significantly cheaper than the first-floor units. And despite being warned that it was up 14 steps, we again made the decision based on frugality. A decision we would come to regret as we have schlepped (really heavy!) stuff up and down those stairs over the past five years.
Alex has specifically asked that I try and describe the hell of dealing with a lot of stuff in a small space. I think I’m pretty good at logistics, but it was like a never-ending game of Tetris trying to get the boxes to fit. And when we were going through stuff, it was like this:
Take these 10 boxes out to get to the one on the bottom, and then shift those 8 boxes over so that they are up against the wall, then pull out the one you want, and then try and get the 10 original boxes back in. But without the one on the bottom, they all fall over (especially as the cardboard gets weak and soggy over time), so quickly run to HomeDepot to buy a plastic tub/container, empty the boxes and repack them into the tub, and then shift the tub back into the unit. But a tub is bigger than a box, and therefore heavier and harder to shift. Oh wait, before you can go to HomeDepot to buy the tub, you have to get everything back in the unit so you can close and lock it. So shove it in as best you can, run to get the tub, and by the time you’ve come back, all the boxes have fallen against the door in the front so you can’t actually open it anymore. And when you do get it open again, you realise that the tub you’ve bought has a different shape than the tubs you bought last time, so they don’t stack securely, and the wobble is pretty worrying… it’s probably all going to collapse again as soon as you close the door…
Times a zillion! And do that in the heat and cold, with no facilities, and you’re guaranteed a few cranky exchanges.
Once we got our permanent UK residency cards last fall, we decided that enough was enough. So we made two trips (one disastrous attempt in January, during a blizzard when it was freezing cold) and one just last week (when it was ridiculously, boiling hot) to clear the thing out. In our shared calendar, the trip was called “STORAGE UNIT OR DIE!!” I’m pleased to say we didn’t die.
For the record, we had at least 14 boxes of books in the unit to deal with. We estimate it was about 1,000 pounds (weight, not value!). Of that, we ended up taking 10 boxes to a book re-seller in Pennsylvania… he paid us about$130 for all of them. There were a lot of painful decisions to be made, but ultimately we only brought back the books that were valuable financially or sentimentally. Anything that could be replaced or repurchased was sold or donated.
In addition to the books, we have all the china, flatware, and wine glasses that we received as wedding gifts. I’m really pleased to say that managed to find a way to bring it all to London in our carry-on baggage. I’m sure it looked funny going through the x-ray, but no one questioned it, so I guess they are used to seeing Champagne glasses in bubble-wrap!
Of the other things remaining, the only problematic item was my wedding dress, which I wasn’t expecting. No one wants old wedding dresses. Or rather, they want properly old wedding dresses, but 8 years isn’t old enough to be considered “vintage”, but it’s not young enough to be in style. None of the charities would take my dress – not even Brides Against Breast Cancer! So we risked putting the giant box in the cargo hold, and brought it with us to London. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with it here, but I’m sure I can eventually find someone who wants a lovely dress.
So that’s that! The last of the ties that bind us to the US (other than friends and family of course, and student loans…and taxes…). It feels so good to get rid of the storage unit. It’s like a giant, 5×5-foot monkey off my back. It started off a haven where we stored the things that were precious to us, but over the years it became an albatross. Making the (increasing!) payments every month and every year, visiting it when possible to ensure that nothing was wrong, sorting through our previously-treasured possessions which – after five years apart – felt more like the detritus of a life abandoned … well, trust me. Don’t ever get a storage unit.
Bringing it All Back
The only way we were able to bring as much stuff back as we did is that Alex has status with British Airways, which means he gets more bags, and heavier bags, than usual. We could bring 8 pieces of checked luggage, and each could weight up to 70lbs. We didn’t quite use up our entire allotment, since the wedding dress box was large but light, but I feel really bad about those tubs of books. We sealed them up with duct tape, but I still had visions of the boxes opening up and all our books being loose on the runway! Luckily they made it safe and sound.
- Don’t get a storage unit!
- If you absolutely have to get a storage unit:
- Inventory all the boxes.
- Keep the inventory in a safe place. (We lost ours!)
- Number/label all the boxes and match it to the inventory.
- Take pictures of everything that goes in each box. That way you can sort remotely and make the hard decisions in advance, rather than dealing with an emotional sucker-punch every time you open a box.
- Don’t get cardboard boxes. Get plastic tubs instead. With handles.
- Get plastic tubs that are small enough to shift easily.
- Get plastic tubs that stack securely (i.e. same size/shape/edges)
- Go for the ground floor unit. Your back will thank you.
- Be seriously, sadistically ruthless when deciding what to keep in the unit. If you can buy a new one, do so. It’s not worth the price of saving that toaster. Trust me!
- Consider hotel availability near the unit – where are you going to stay when you visit? The nearest hotels to Howell are a 30 minute drive away, which means we lost an hour each day just to commuting.
- Negotiate a lower price and longer terms when you first move in. They will increase it every year, but if you start at a lower base, you’ll pay less overall than if you just take the first offer.
Two days after the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 tube bombings, and about two months before the planned start of all-night tube services on Fridays and Saturdays (“The Night Tube”), unions are staging a 24+hour strike that started to disrupt services during the Wednesday PM rush hour and led to no tube service at all on Thursday. This is the first strike to completely close the London Underground network since 2002 (although there have been plenty of quite disruptive partial closures due to so-called “industrial action” in our years here).
All four major unions are taking part in this strike, which is why the impact is so total. And why? Disputes over pay related to the introduction of the overnight services. Before you get too sympathetic for those poor train drivers having to work overnight, let me just remind you that the average driver salary (according to a report from the union itself!) is about $77,000 per year. Where else can you make that kind of money with no need for any special education or skills, and with excellent benefits (some reports suggest that they get around 50 days off per year)? The offer on the table is for a 2% raise along with a £2500 one-time bonus for those drivers on lines that will operate overnight. Plus, they are hiring 137 additional drivers to support the extra service, which means more jobs for the unions (isn’t that what they should want?). I can’t see how the public can really be on the unions’ side, given the massive disruption and real cost to the city as well as the terms of the deal and the fact that they don’t seem to be getting much of a message out there. I really think such strikes should be illegal here like they are in New York!
Anyway, I was originally going to work from home to avoid the mess, but after some stern words from my employer insisting on relatively broadly defined “reasonable effort” to make it in, I decided to walk. I am in better shape than many others, as we live only a little more than 3 miles as the crow flies – but when walking that along streets and through the park that inflates to about 4.25 miles.
Last night the strike was supposed to start at 6 or 630 pm, so they advised everyone to complete their journeys by 6pm. I had a late meeting and was in the office until about 630pm, but decided to still give the tube a shot. It was amazing – best commute home ever! Peak service levels were still running, but there were hardly any passengers! I should have gotten some pictures of the empty trains, but didn’t. By the time I exited at home at King’s Cross around 7pm they were starting to ramp down some services – the Metropolitan Line seemed to be the first to go, not surprisingly as it has the longest reach outside of London and also tends to be the most unionist stalwart (senior drivers seem to prefer this route because it is relatively long, has fewer passengers, and mostly outdoors in the countryside!).
To try to keep the city moving, Transport for London has mobilized about 200 extra buses – not a huge number compared to the approximately 8000 buses on the street each day, but targeted can be helpful – as well as additional Thames riverboat services. The key issue is that most* of the suburban rail services are still operating, leading to large volumes of passengers needing to travel from terminals to their final destinations (*there is a separate strike on First Great Western, the operator serving Paddington, due to concerns over reduced on-board train staff on the new long-distance trains that will be introduced in the next couple of years).
After the long walk this morning I don’t think I’ll want to do that again tonight, but I have a work social event after work and I should be able to get a bus or use the operating Overground service to get home later in the evening. The real question, I suppose, is whether there will be additional strikes over this issue and how the dispute gets resolved (and whether it impacts the start of the night tube services in September or not!).
Yesterday I published a look at travel statistics for 2014 – just shy of 115,000 miles flown on 61 flights, both of which were new records. Here I am going to review the year’s travel chronologically… in pictures. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I must note that most of the time on business trips is spent in non-photogenic (i.e. ugly!) conference or hotel rooms…but I’m picking out the highlights here from special events or any extra time after the work was done!
JANUARY – AN ANNUAL PILGRIMAGE
Although we started the year in Dubrovnik, I was soon off to Washington DC for my annual trip to a massive transportation conference (in 2014 there were more than 12,000 people attending!). Unlike in past years, where I added on extra time to see family or for other work on the East Coast, 2014 was a quick turnaround.
FEBRUARY – BACK TO BYZANTIUM
In February, I spent a week in Istanbul for work, returning a little more than a year after our Christmas 2013 trip. Astrid went to Istanbul later in the year with our friend Sarah. While I spent more time riding the trains, I believe they spent more time shopping in the bazaar. There are things for both of us to like in Istanbul, that is for sure!
MARCH MEANT MEXICO
March was my first time in Mexico, with a week-long trip to Mexico City. It was interesting – amazing hospitality from our local hosts, including caring for my boss when he got sick during the week (and I had to take over everything!), great food, and interesting challenges for the metro – but also the feeling of being in an armed bubble, with a big security force surrounding us at all times (even surrounding our bus in pick-up trucks – no doubt also a type of hospitality, but not one that made me feel at ease).
APRIL – A MIDWEST TOUR
At the start of April, a colleague and I made a trip through the Midwest of the US, visiting Dayton, Cleveland, suburban Chicago and Des Moines.
Although business was in suburban Chicago, we had a weekend day to spend in Chicago.
The last stop on the Midwest Tour was Des Moines. Not much to report from “flyover country”, although to be fair it was a decent place that exceeded my expectations. I thought I had a picture of a sign that said “Des Moines – not as bad as you think” but I can’t find it!
APRIL IN LOVELY LISBOA
MAY MEGA-TRIP TO THE US AND CANADA
After the work part was done, I had essentially three days on my own before meeting Astrid in Los Angeles for the family part of this massive May trip. As you can imagine, I agonized over how to spend this precious time. Visiting friends in the US was basically ruled out due to working weekday, and from a starting point of Buffalo I had to end up on the fourth day in LA. I seriously considered a visit to the Canadian Club factory in Windsor, Ontario followed by a dark tourism stop in Detroit, but I figured that wouldn’t work so well by transit and with lots of luggage.
Instead, I chose to visit Calgary and Edmonton, two Canadian cities (and two excellent modern light rail systems) that I had always wanted to see. This required a complicated travel plan, especially since air travel to and within Canada is generally pretty expensive (with the airport in Toronto, for example, having some of the highest taxes/fees of any in the world). I devised a cunning plan, combining the purchase of cheap segments with an available first-class miles redemption from Dallas to Calgary (for the expensive cross-border part). Now, you are probably thinking that Dallas is slightly off any sensible route from Buffalo to Calgary…but such is life in “air world”.
It started brilliantly; a hard but rewarding day’s work in Buffalo, with an early arrival and easy check-in at the airport, and settling down in the US Airways Club with a nice glass of wine. 30 seconds later, the iPad revealed that my flight to Dallas that night was cancelled! Instead of a relaxing night in the Hyatt Regency DFW and an easy 10am start the next morning, I had a ‘free’ night at the crappy Days Inn Buffalo Airport and a 4:30am wake-up for a 6am flight to Chicago, to then connect to Dallas all in time for my scheduled 10:55 flight to Calgary. I was actually hoping that my extensive luggage wouldn’t make it through both tight connections (so they would have to deliver it to me in Calgary instead of me carrying it!), but it did.
Some tense moments and a little running at DFW got me to the Calgary flight just in time…and the plan was back on track. Until Canadian border officials in Calgary didn’t like my reason for being there – “just to visit the city” – and decided to give me an extra private interrogation and a VERY thorough check of all my bags. I thought Canadians were all supposed to be friendly? Again, I know that a lot of people get treated like this all the time, so I shouldn’t complain – but after a 4:30am start and the hassle of the day, I wasn’t in the mood. After that, I have to say, Calgary and Edmonton were nice cities.
I then ventured even further north to Edmonton, in the comfort of a Greyhound (Canada) Express service. Who can argue with $25?
After more than a week visiting families in Los Angeles and Baltimore (where we proudly watched my little brother graduate from High School), we made a quick stop in New Jersey to visit our storage unit, pack up a few things, and then head home.
JUNE – JUST AS BUSY
After getting back home from the mega-trip, we headed right back out for a quick weekend in Manchester. We had scheduled this long before the May madness was arranged based on a great deal – the ability to add a domestic flight within the UK onto either (or both) ends of any European award flight redemption on British Airways for free. So, despite living a 5-minute walk from Euston Station, which has express trains every 20 minutes to Manchester that take about 2 hours, we actually flew from Heathrow as an add-on to our flight back from Lisbon (there can be up to a year stop-over in between, as I understand it – it just requires you knowing what you want in advance, because changes cost about $50 each).
Later in June I was very happy to be able to return to Malaysia and Singapore. Despite the extreme heat I really liked both places on my first visit in 2013, and it was great to confirm those first impressions in 2014.
JULY – HOME JAMES
We didn’t really do much in July.
AUGUST IN CHINA
After a break, it was on the road again to China in August, with the first stop being a week in Shanghai. Although I was there in 2010 on one of my first work trips, so much has changed in Shanghai in that short time, including the continued massive growth of the metro into the world’s largest.
At the end of the week I took a train from Shanghai to Nanjing, which is a little under 200 miles. The high-speed train took only about an hour and 20 minutes (even with a couple of intermediate stops). As my train proceeded northwest, the atmosphere got more and more desolate…away from the coast and the financial center of Shanghai are the factories, which produce the famously dreadful Chinese air quality.
After three days in Nanjing I flew to Hong Kong for my final stop. This was my first flight on Dragonair, the shorter-distance subsidiary of Cathay Pacific. The flight was good, although the delay on the ground was longer than the entire 2:30 flying time! I understand that this is becoming more and more common as Chinese air space is often taken up by the military. It was very stormy in Hong Kong, but having selected a hotel adjacent to the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station, I didn’t even have to go outside!
At the end of August, after so many trips through Helsinki Airport, I finally got out and entered Finland! Astrid and I had a great long weekend there, enjoying the long hours of daylight, the relatively laid back atmosphere, and especially the island fortress of Suomenlinna.
I started September in Vienna, on a quick one-day trip to that amazing city. It definitely requires a longer return with Astrid! From there I had to be in Barcelona a day later, so I took 22 hours to cross Europe by overnight sleeper train to Zurich and then on across Switzerland to Geneva and then into France and ultimately Spain by high-speed TGV train.
After Barcelona, while Astrid went to Istanbul for a week’s vacation, I headed to Delhi in India – a new country! It was overwhelming – a week of hard work but also Delhi belly, extreme poverty, and amazing transformation as they build one of the world’s biggest modern metro systems.
OCTOBER – DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS
A week after returning from Delhi – just enough time for my stomach to recover from a week straight of Indian food – it was time for Tex-Mex on another trip to Texas, this time primarily to Austin.
After Austin, we hopped on a Megabus to Houston for a quick overnight stop. Houston was the largest city in the US I’d never been to, and I have to say it was a bit more cosmopolitan than I was expecting.
By far the most important happening in October, however, was getting our permanent residency here in the UK! After a lot of paperwork and money – and a test – we made it…see our separate post about it.
NOVEMBER – A FORBIDDEN CITY AND A “PRETTY GOOD” (maybe even great) WALL
After a special birthday visit to the top of the Shard in London, I headed off on Finnair (via Helsinki once more) to the Far East, this time to Beijing.
We tried for the second year in a row (and succeeded this time!) to visit the famous German Christmas Market in Birmingham – it is said to be the largest in the world not actually in Deutschland. Astrid attempted to eat a bratwurst that was 1/2 meter long, while I chomped down on some schnitzel.
To wrap it up, our very relaxing Algarve holiday in Portugal that you’ve been reading about.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading my annual chronicle. I’m sorry that more of these didn’t come out over the course of the year.
Best wishes to all for a happy and healthy 2015!