Monthly Archives: November 2019

San Francisco takes its toll

In a tedious post-script to my American trip, I finally got an e-mail confirming my account with Bay Area FasTrak was closed.

The Bay Area is home to many of the world’s biggest names in computing, and none of them were hired to build the all-electronic tolling system for the Golden Gate Bridge. You have to sign up for an account (in advance) even if you just want to pay a one-off toll for your rental car*, and then all the online settings to close the account fail to work and you have to phone them. Whereupon they can only suspend the account and cause it to close a month later.

Meanwhile, the website is terrible, and I was told it takes up to 72 hours for your crossings to show up (it’s at least that). 72 hours! Clearly, somebody has to drive out to the bridge and change the tapes by hand, then bring them back for a basement full of interns to type the number plates up.

If the Americans want my advice, have a chat to the people who built the system for our Dartford Crossing. It just works, and makes yours look like the mid-90’s embarassment it clearly is.

*Or you can pay the rental firm a silly number of dollars per day for the privilege of renting an electronic toll tag. But nuts to that – while tedious, this experience saved me about $50 that I spent on steak instead. Canny consumers 1, car rental firms 0.

Re-kindling the Kindle 4

They don’t make ’em like this any more.

Earlier in the year, I went to Brighton for the weekend, and frankly, I wish I hadn’t bothered. It’s not Brighton’s fault; it seems like a nice city and has several good restaurants and at least one excellent bookshop; I’m sure I’ll be back.

However, for various reasons, I was tired, cranky and morose. It was far too hot, the cheapest room at the Metropole lacks a decent amount of natural light and is a silly shape, the trains were tedious enough to make me wish for the concrete embrace of the M25, and mid way through the trip, I managed to put my seven year old Kindle 4 in a back pocket and sit on it.

Needless to say, this was not a good idea, and the screen ended up busted because of it.

Ah well, you say. Seven years was a good innings, now stop complaining and buy yourself a new one. Trouble is, I don’t want a new one – partly because I can’t believe Amazon are still charging the same headline price as in 2012, and partly because I don’t want a flipping touchscreen. I’ve used my parents’ touchscreen ones and I find the page turning gestures unnatural and pointless. I just want the same device I’ve been used to for the better part of a decade, with buttons for turning the pages.

Well, fortunately I managed to bag one on eBay which was allegedly boxed and never used (unwanted gift or something). “New old stock” is the way to go here – I tried a second hand one first, and the battery life was terrible – I’ve no idea what the previous owner did to it, but eventually the WiFi died on me as well.

Get ’em while they still exist. There’s even an option to sync collections from your old, busted, one if you dig deep enough into the menus.


Travel tips

Some of this post was inspired by Andrew Godwin’s travel equipment 2019 article.

Fresh back from my long USA trip, which was followed by two shorter domestic ones, I thought I’d write up a few Rules To Live By when it comes to travel. In addition to the personal stuff, I’ve done an increasing number of short-haul 48-72 hour business trips over to continental Europe in the past year too.

Keep a permanent “travel set” of as much as you can

Obviously, this one depends somewhat on your budget. But let’s start with the basics: things like toothpaste and toothbrushes aren’t going to cost you any more (in the long run) to keep an extra set of. Probably the biggest win with all my trips this year has been having a permanently packed washbag: it lives in my hand-luggage-sized suitcase and saves me having to grab anything from the bathroom except perhaps my electric razor.

The next thing, as per Andrew’s post, is plugs and adapters. I still have a mixture of USB-C and micro-USB charging on my devices, so I carry a mix of cables plus a plug which goes into the wall or into a car “lighter socket” and outputs a couple of USB ports. I also carry a UK power strip, which means I only need the one EU/USA travel plug adapter to ensure I have four UK sockets available (watch the total current on this one – it might not be a good idea to run a hair dryer off such a setup). This is also the antidote to cheaper or un-modernised hotels which don’t have enough sockets and/or have the only one in completely the wrong place in the room.

Since I rarely go far off the grid, I carry just the one small USB battery pack which is pocket size, and suffices to top up my phone in the event of an extra-long or extra-phone-heavy day. Activities like camping tend to be UK-based and involve my car, in the back of which there’s a car battery booster which also has USB ports and a big capacity.

Work are also generous enough to provide three power bricks for my company-issue laptop: one for my desk at the office, one for home and one for travel. Don’t be shy about asking your employer for the same; if they’re smart about their procurement they ought to have spare adapters lying around the place anyway or be happy to have more.

That’s about as far as I’ve got, but I’m pondering keeping some clothes in the suitcase too so I can just grab it and go for the short trips and weekends.

One other tip for the travel set: go to your local Boots (or whatever) and buy toothpaste, contact lens fluid, etc. in small enough sizes to get them through airport security as hand luggage. It’s cheaper to do this on the high street rather than get ripped off at the airport. You can even keep it all packed in a transparent plastic bag to make going through security as quick as possible.

Be religious about not packing too-big fluids in your hand luggage: inevitably, you get away with it about two thirds of the time, then it all gets confiscated right before you need it most (why yes, I did lose my sun cream at Newark, and I am bitter about it not being a problem on at least three flights prior to that one).

VPN

I haven’t got as far as a travel router yet – second best on this is to ensure you have data coverage on your phone, and use it as a hot spot. I do have a cheap and cheerful one on order though, as it would be handy to be able to use a Chromecast etc. with hotel televisions.

One thing I did make extensive use of in the USA was my UK-based VPN (lots of providers are available; I run my own). In addition to securing all the traffic from my phone and laptop when on hotel WiFi, this also ensured I could access the UK versions of sites including the BBC News without adverts or an American slant.

Books

It’s got to be the Kindle (or equivalent e-reader device). Lugging paper books around is a good way to damage them (all books are sacred!) and they’re heavy.

Entertainment

I have a cheap-as-chips Amazon tablet, which is perfect for downloading entire series onto from Prime Video or Netflix (go find that option, it’s surprisingly little-known and really handy). This plugs the gap when insufficient internet prevents streaming live.

Luggage

After hauling a venerable suitcase around the states which is rather heavy in its own right (when empty), I’m considering investing in something modern and carbon-fibre. For all my Europe trips, though, it’s hand-luggage-only all the way.

USA 2019: Day 24

New York, NY / Newark Liberty International Airport, NJ – Thursday 31 October

On my final day in a damp and unispiring NYC, I had a mooch round Central Park, did some shopping in Rockefeller Center, took a few pictures of the UN (which looks even worse in real life than the Space Shuttle did) and finished up with spaghetti and meatballs.

(time passes)

You join me writing up these last few blog posts at Newark Airport. Will Virgin Atlantic double down on the earlier, pleasant, experience of the outbound journey? I’ll be sure to update this post when I’m home.

Update: a somewhat older and creakier aircraft, but otherwise not bad. We even landed early(!)

Postscript: US SIM card

It may have been rather overpriced, but my Lycamobile SIM never missed a beat. Obviously, California is big enough that there are places with no cellphone signal at all, including stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway. However, signal permitting, I had all the data I could eat in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Jersey and New York. Once I’d worked out the number, I could also make and receive calls, despite it being billed as a data-only SIM (handy for making restaurant reservations). In fact, the only thing it wouldn’t do was send outbound SMS. I’ll buy a full fat one next time, since the prices were near identical. I’m kinda hoping that eSIM will have made all of this better next time I have an extended trip over the pond.

Postscript 2: Money

Use Monzo everywhere. The end. I was disappointed that American Express (American!) charge non-sterling transaction fees on UK Amex cards, so I didn’t use mine after the first few days (unless doing bookings via hotels.com or similar where they routinely charge the card in GBP). Monzo is great, and having real-time tracking in pounds and pence is handy for budgeting. The only things to watch out for are that US restaurants take several days to settle card transactions for the amount including the tip (but the Monzo app even explains this now), and that Monzo relies on “online authorization”. So if your retailer’s card machine can’t phone home (e.g. you’re in a national park in the middle of rural California), you need to use another card.

The only thing you can’t (or shouldn’t) use Monzo for is car hire – because they need to “preauthorize” the damage deposit, you really do want to use a credit card, not a debit card, otherwise they’ll literally take the damage deposit out of your current account and not give it back for days after you return the car.

USA 2019: Day 23

New York, NY – Wednesday 30 October

Perhaps it’s an inevitable side effect of seeing it after three weeks in sunny California, but Manhattan has so far proved a disappointment. A perverse part of me was quite looking forward to some colder weather, but it is in fact simultaneously 20°C and damp and drizzly – in other words, sweaty and horrible, and calculated to make one think black thoughts about what mankind is doing to the planet. I mean, shouldn’t it be more like 10°C in New York before halloween?

Needless to say, the night flight from LA to Newark was a terrible idea (too short to get enough sleep, especially when sat right at the back next to the toilets) – I won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

On a brighter note, there wasn’t much in the way of a queue for the top of the Empire State Building. On a cloudier note, the zero visibility eplained why not:

Don’t spring the extra $20 for going up the final bit, if you want my advice

Ah well, I had a decent dinner at the bottom afterwards.