Author Archives: David North

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 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.


USA 2019: (Long) Day 22

Los Angeles, CA – Tuesday 29 October

Downtown on the left, Normandie Avenue in the centre

Since the Getty Fire has indeed thwarted my plans to see the Getty (ah well, I’m not much of a one for art anyway), I spent the day in Griffith Park instead. It was far too hot for me to be enthused about hiking four miles to see the Hollywood sign at close quarters, but I climbed the adjoining mountain and got some great LA panoramas from there. You can definitely see that legendary smog from up here, though.

Tonight, I’m flying the red-eye to New York (9.40PM Pacific Time -> 6AM Eastern Standard Time). What seemed like a great money-saving idea (no need to pay for tonight in a hotel!) at my desk in England seems rather less so on the day/night … but we shall see.

Postscript – how did LA without a car work out?

Days = 5

Total spent on Uber/Lyft = $211

Total spent on five day metro pass = $27

Total = $238

vs approximately $200 for a rental car, plus insurance, plus gas, plus the quite high cost of parking at some of the places I visited.

So I came out (slightly) ahead financially. On the upside, I didn’t have to worry about the lunchtime martinis. On the downside, I’d definitely have taken a spin round more of the city if I’d had my own wheels. Overall, though, I’d done enough driving on this trip already that I’m quite pleased I decided to stop. It is meant to be a holiday, after all, and solo driving is quite wearing. Most of the time, I avoided the worst of the LA traffic, but getting to the airport tonight would have been torturous behind the wheel.

In order to make the numbers work, it’s worth noting that about a third of the Uber/Lyft rides were shared rather than solo. Most of the drivers were great, one or two were complete maniacs, and only one had an unhealthy interest in both Brexit and the royal family.

USA 2019: Day 21

Los Angeles, CA – Monday 28 October

If you squint a bit, you can see the Hollywood sign from my hotel balcony

A bit of a rest day today – lots of tourist attractions in LA close on Mondays, so I went and had a wander round The Original Farmers’ Market – including a doughnut at Bob’s and a delicious, if overpriced, corned beef sandwhich (world famous, apparently).

For the first time this trip, the wildfires may end up affecting my plans, as the Getty Fire looks set to prevent me visiting, er, The Getty tomorrow. Plan B in the works…

USA 2019: Day 20

Los Angeles, CA – Sunday 27 October

I took a trip out to Pasadena today, made famous (among other things) by The Big Bang Theory (they’ve even named a street after it). And, as it happens, I had lunch at The Cheesecake Factory, the interior of which looks rather different from its televised incarnation.

On the way back, I had a wander round Downtown LA, including passing the courthouse and the PAB, and finishing up at The Last Bookstore, where I broke my self-imposed rule about not buying any more books until I’ve read all the ones I currently own:

A very LA story…

USA 2019: Day 19

Los Angeles, CA – Saturday 26 October

When you think you’ve run out of martni, there’s more in the shaker!

Today’s trip was to Hollywood Boulevard. As part of touring the locations visited by the characters in Michael Connelly’s crime novels (and because it was in the guide book), I had lunch at the Musso & Frank Grill, which was delicious, and very atmospheric. It was also the most I’ve spent on lunch in, er, ever, but well worth it for the experience.

Most of the names in the sidewalk stars meant little to me, but I did managed to find James Dean, and another more recent actor who I’ve always admired:

I rather enjoyed The Mysteries of Laura until they cancelled it.

(insert photo of Debra Messing’s star here)

USA 2019: Day 18

Los Angeles, CA – Friday 25 October

Endeavour at the Science Center in LA

Today’s desitnation was the California Science Center, wherein lies the Space Shuttle Endeavour. I must admit I was expecting it to be a bit bigger in real life, but if you think about how they used to fly them around on top of a modified 747, it makes sense. It was also a bit tattier than I imagined it, but I suppose going to space and back 25 times is quite rough on the paintwork.

I enjoyed seeing it (and the rest of the exhibits), but a small part of me wonders whether spending $200 million to transport and exhibit it was the best possible use of the dosh.

USA 2019: Day 17

Los Angeles, CA – Thursday 24 October

HQ for the next five nights

I flew out of Vegas on Southwest Airlines this morning, back over to LA to spend an extra-long weekend. I’m pleased to say I made it out of Sin City without doing any gambling – given my ongoing battle to control my weight, I suspect mine is the sort of personality which would chase its losses if given the chance to.

Southwest could definitely teach most of the short haul carriers in Europe a thing or two – I arrived at McCarran International Airport with just under an hour to go before the flight, self-labelled and handed over my checked baggage on the sidewalk outside the terminal, breezed through security, and just had time to grab a sandwich before take off. We arrived early, and I only had to wait 90 seconds before the bags arrived on the carousel. I can’t ever remember flying around Europe going that smoothly.

So far, I’m pleased with the Aventura Hotel in LA – reasonably handy for all the places I want to visit, and almost brand new, which means clean, done up to a nice standard, and featuring a decent sized TV and USB charging sockets.

My planned five nights here is the longest in-one-place stay of the trip, and it’s nice to be somewhere long enough to make it worthwhile unpacking.

There’s also a KFC a couple of blocks over (well, I’m planning on visiting some famous but pricey Hollywood restaurants, so the daily average spend has to be dragged back down somehow…).

USA 2019: Day 16

The Grand Canyon, AZ – Wednesday 23 October

The main reason for flying over to Las Vegas for a couple of nights was to visit the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, both of which are possible to cover in one (long) day trip from LV.

I got picked up at 0545(!) from my hotel, then we drove out to the Grand Canyon – in the past 24 hours, adding Nevada and Arizona to the list has doubled the number of US states I’ve visited.

First stop was the Hoover Dam, which is, erm, big. I was surprised how little water there was in the lake, though.

Hoover Dam (intake towers on the right, dam in the middle)

It surprised me to learn that, in the land of pure capitalism, the dam was both built by the government, and remains owned and operated by the government to this day.

And then, a mere four hours’ drive further on (we had a good tour guide who kept us entertained on the bus though) – the Grand Canyon.

Pictures, especially those taken on a mobile phone by me, cannot convey the sheer size of this hole in the ground, but here’s the best one I managed:

The Grand Canyon, seen from the south rim near the village

All in all, a grand day out. (See what I did there?)