Category Archives: Travel to the States
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.
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!
I am admittedly late with my year-end travel review this year, and for the sake of all, I’m going to make it more succinct than in the past. This is the third annual year-end review – 2011 was “The Year of Travel” and 2012 was “Crossing the 100k Line”. I’ve chosen 2013’s title because the year was slightly less crazy than 2012, involved a bit less total travel and an overall somewhat better work-life balance, as seen not only in more personal travel but also working fewer weekends.
In 2013 I was not at home for 116 nights, just a bit shy of 1/3 of the time (and only 3 nights less than last year’s monster total). With 27 nights away with Astrid (very similar to last year’s 26), that meant we were apart for 89 nights, or just about 25% of the year – which is about one week each month on average. The greatest difference from last year was more personal travel – in addition to time with Astrid I was away for 11 additional nights that were not for business (although usually tacked on to the end of business trips).
Looking at where I was, I spent 41 nights in North America (vs. 42 in 2012) and a lot of time in South America – 26 nights over two trips including our long vacation in Argentina and Chile. I just had one long trip to Asia, with 15 nights in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. That trip featured my only night on a train, to match last year’s night aboard the Caledonian Sleeper to Scotland – but quite a different experience!
The rest of the time away was closer to home – 18 nights in Europe highlighted by my trip through France to Barcelona with Bill and our end-of-the-year vacation to Dubrovnik, and 7 nights here in the UK, including our romantic getaway to the swanky hotel in the former eye hospital in Exeter around Valentine’s Day and two nights in a hotel in London (same as 2012, and again for a big local work event). In addition to the night on the Thai train mentioned above, 11 other nights were in transit – two nights on Brittany Ferries’ Pont-Aven to and from St Malo in France, and 9 nights on airplanes (on five different airlines).
The year’s total flying came to about 92,000 miles. Although this is nearly 20k fewer than last year, it still comes to more than 3.5x around the Earth! Interestingly, despite traveling less distance I took 6 more flights – 43 individual flights in 2013 compared to 37 in 2012. To make the math balance out, that means that there were more short flights; 63% of my flights were short-haul, this year all about 4 hours or less.
Although 2013 doesn’t look all that interesting on the map compared to 2012, the flying highlights were different. In 2013 I flew for the first time on both the Airbus A380 super jumbo and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. My A380 flight from Singapore to London was also my longest flight at more than 6700 miles and about 13 ½ hours, and it was on 5-star Singapore Airlines, the launch customer for the world’s largest passenger aircraft back in 2007. Despite its size, you really don’t even notice that the plane is two levels because each deck is boarded from a separate jet bridge. The other really noticeable characteristic is noise – there is virtually none! I have to give Airbus credit for being dramatically quieter than Boeing.
Although the A380 was memorable, it was actually my only long-haul Airbus flight this year. The other 15 long-haul flights were all Boeing. The highlight was probably the my Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight from London to Newark on British Airways. Luckily, this was in November, well after the innovative aircraft got back in the air following its worldwide grounding early in 2013. The 747 with its short upper deck is still a favorite, though – I’ve had 16 flights on 747s in the past three years, and it will be sad to see them disappear over the coming years – although British Airways is the largest 747 operator in the world with 52, they are going to be phased out in favor of new and more fuel-efficient planes.
I flew the most on the old Boeing 767s – eight times including three short-haul flights and long-haul flights on BA and twice each on Delta and LAN.
The other highlight of 2013 flying was airlines – although nearly 1/3 was British Airways (14 flights), I flew six totally new airlines as well as first-time long-haul flying with both Delta and American. I covered a lot of ground in Singapore and Malaysia, flying for the first time not only on the superb Singapore Airlines, but also on Malaysia Airlines and two of the top low-cost carriers that are following the path of easyJet and Southwest – Jetstar Asia and AirAsia. Despite not flying previously with LAN, I flew with them five times in 2013, including two long-hauls between Miami and Santiago, and they definitely appear to be the best airline in South America. I also note that the newest premium long-haul products on both American and Delta were both quite good, and it is nice to see the US-based airlines posting a decent showing.
Rounding out my new airlines was Vueling, a fast-growing ultra low-cost carrier based in Spain, and now owned by both the Spanish flag carrier Iberia and IAG, the parent company of British Airways. It was perfectly efficient for an hour-long flight from Barcelona to Paris, but they sure do pack them in – with the maximum number of 180 seats in an Airbus A320 (as compared to just about 150 seats on the same plane as operated by British Airways).
Looking at airports for a moment, it is no surprise that Heathrow again is in the lead. Over the last three years I’ve taken off or landed at Heathrow 58 times, including 18 this year – meaning that in 2013 one in five of my flights either started or ended at Heathrow). Heathrow gets a bad rap all around the world, but actually I don’t think it’s so bad if you know how to navigate it. Even though London has now six airports, in 2013 I used only Heathrow, apart from departing Gatwick twice – to Las Vegas in March and to Dubrovnik last week. Second-place in airport frequency this year was New York JFK at the start or end of 8 flights, followed by six at Singapore Changi (which is often rated the best airport in the world) and five at Santiago.
Rather than go back through the entire year, I thought it might be worth just touching on a few highlights via pictures.
The year ended with a great trip to Dubrovnik for New Year’s – see the scene at Midnight here. More to come on Dubrovnik soon. As for my 2014 travel outlook, I’ve got some new and exciting (if challenging!) destinations coming up – Mexico City, Delhi, and Beijing before the year is out. Best wishes to you and yours for a healthy and successful 2014 and happy travels!