Letter from Felixstowe: Jet Lag Jambalaya – Breaking the Rules

Jet lag - a stew of sensations

Jet lag – a stew of sensations

My original ‘Jet Lag Jambalaya’ post contains recommendations on how to handle the effects of long-distance east-west or west-east travel. My suggestions are based on years of personal experience with long-haul travel for various family and work reasons

I’m afraid to say, however, that this week I’ve broken all my own rules. Yesterday, when we arrived home in the UK, I did not try to stay awake. I did not ‘eat when the locals do’ at lunchtime or go out for a walk in natural light.

I stood under a hot shower, soaked my aching muscles, turned on our electric blanket, crawled into bed at 1pm, and slept until 9:30pm. Clive, who stayed awake most of the day, made us cups of tea and then it was time for both of us to sleep. I had one more cup of tea at 3am, watched a few minutes of BBC news and went right back to sleep.

2 AWAKE AT NIGHT

After our activity-filled days in the U.S. we didn’t leave the apartment today. The weather’s grey and drizzly so we haven’t even stepped onto the balcony. We did manage dinner at the usual time, a step on the path back to normality.

Tomorrow we’ll face the real world again. I know I’m blessed to have had a day simply to be a hermit, even if I’m not following my own jet lag advice. Lesson learned: sometimes it’s okay, even essential, to listen to one’s body and go with the flow.

Wherever you may be, I wish you a peaceful night’s sleep.

3 AT LAST

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

A Trip with a Difference

My first trip to Paris, age 25 (a few years ago)

My first trip to Paris, age 25 (a few years ago)

Sydney

Clive and I are in trip mode once again, heading off next week to visit family in England and the U.S. and to spend some ‘just us’ time in Paris.

Earlier this year, I wrote a Passion for Travel series, in which I described a number of our travel tips and techniques, beginning with a master trip calendar and ending with coming home.

On our upcoming trip, for the first time ever, we’ll be spending a majority of our time – 56.76%, to be exact, or 42 of 74 nights — in Paris.

To put it mildly, I’m excited about this.

We’ll have eight days in Paris at each end of the trip, and a full 26 nights there in the middle. This will be the longest continuous time I’ll ever have spent in Paris. We’ve also planned about two weeks each in England and the U.S.

Leaving Sydney

Long Way 3

How did life get to be so complicated? I know the issues of Family Globalisation and the conflicting emotions of being an ex-pat are experienced by thousands the world over, including many readers of this blog.

I feel so lucky to have both Sydney and Paris in my life. There are so many things I love about each city.  This winter in Sydney was beautiful – sunny and sparkling – although we were stressed for much of it because both of our mothers were in and out of hospital with serious health issues.

We have realised that in the current phase of our lives, our first priority is to travel for family. Then, within parameters such as birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, we plan as much ‘just us’ time as we feel comfortable doing. It’s always tricky, balancing the expectations of family spread across three continents; our genuine desire to see each of them as often as possible; and our wish to spend some couple time whilst away.

No choice is guilt-free or stress-free.  On this trip, we’ll be with Clive’s father for his 90th birthday in England and my mother and son for Thanksgiving in the U.S. Juggling is always required and this time we built our itinerary around these two events.

Airline Surveys and Preferences carefree flight

Thanks to the global economic downturn and airline competition, we found excellent fares between Sydney and Paris on Singapore Airlines. Singapore is one of our absolute favourites (for more detail, see ‘A Passion for Travel, Part 8: Top Ten In-Flight Insights’).

We’re flying American Airlines, a Qantas One World partner, between Paris and New York, to visit my family in the U.S. It’s not a favourite airline but it’s reputable, the price was amazingly low since we booked well in advance, and we get Qantas frequent flyer points.

As reported in an ‘Economist’ article on April 6, 2009, airlines from Asia and the Pacific region were rated highest in an annual survey of global airlines in which 16 million travellers from over 95 countries participated. Number one was Cathay Pacific, followed by Singapore Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Qatar Airways, Emirates, Qantas, Etihad Airways, Air New Zealand, Malaysia Airlines, and Thai Airways.

Seatguru.com, a U.S.-based site we use for checking seat assignments (thanks to my son and Kim B. who both recommended this!) also conducted a survey of 1,600 flyers, published June 11, 2009. Seatguru’s survey respondents said major U.S. carriers serve the worst food and cited United, American, and US Airways as having the least comfortable economy-class seats and the rudest flight attendants. They also rated legroom very important, as it is to me and Clive.

For this trip, we’re trusting that since we’re flying Singapore Airlines all the way, we won’t have a repeat of ‘Asia 101: How Not to Get to Paris,’ which happened last September when we tried a Qantas / Air France combination and ended up taking 42 hours to get to Paris via Beijing. As much as I love visiting Beijing, I do not recommend it as a transit stop between Sydney and Paris.

What I Really Want to Do

Open Book

I’m hoping that, in addition to our upcoming time in Paris being a holiday and the longest time we’ve ever spent away without family obligations, it will also be a time in which I can work on a writing project that’s close to my heart.

I know some of this blog’s readers are also keen writers, and I have shared some of my thoughts about writing in ‘Writing? You Need a Job’. I’ve begun working on a personal project related to times I’ve spent in Paris, and am looking forward to continuing this work in the weeks we spend there.

Speaking of writing, sometime while we’re away, I’m going to try to persuade Clive to write a guest post on a word that is avoided by many Americans but is in common usage around the rest of the world. Stay tuned.

I also hope to see some of my Paris blogger friends in person while we’re there.  I’ll be posting more from Paris soon.

Cheers and happy travels to everyone who may be taking a trip in the near future.

Airport Books

Related posts:
  A Passion for Travel – Series (All posts, Parts 1-11)
 
Hungry Heart: Counting the Days in Paris

Hungry Heart: Counting the Days in Paris

eiffel2

Eiffel Tower

Sydney

Clive and I depart in about a month for our next trip to Paris, England, and the U.S.  We’ll be spending seventy-three nights away from our home in Sydney.

Fourteen of them will be in Paris.

Only fourteen will be in Paris.  How can this be?  How can we be away for seventy-three nights and only spend fourteen in Paris?

There are Others to Consider

globe3The short answer is:  Clive and I have family we want to see, in both the U.S. and England.  We’re not spending more time away because we also have family here in Australia.

Clive’s father is in his 89th year in England, and my parents are approaching their mid-80’s in the U.S.  We also want to see my son, who is now an independent adult in Washington, D.C.

All of them, along with additional family and friends in both countries, want to see us.  As all ex-pats know, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy when you visit, but we try our best to see as many people as time and schedules permit.

We also both love to travel, and try to explore at least one new place on each trip.  This time we’re going to Wales.  I’m excited to see a new country, walk in the Snowdonia region, and visit Hay-on-Wye, a book town I first heard about via Sam’s comment (thank you, Sam!) on my post ‘Travel and Books, Part 5:  Where We Find Them’.

And always, always, I wish we had more time in Paris.

A Hungry Heart

lips

At Beaubourg Fountain

According to Bruce Springsteen, everybody’s got one, and my heart is hungry for Paris.

Two weeks in Paris is nothing less than wonderful.  So what’s my problem?

I’ve had a lifelong love affair with Paris, so much so that ten years ago, I spent my life savings to buy a small apartment there, even though my parents and others told me it was crazy.

The way we have allocated our priorities for this trip feels to me like:

parisperception2

As I always do, I said to Clive, “We have no time in Paris.”  He pointed out nearly twenty per cent of our trip will be spent there.  Our trip in reality looks like:

parisactual

My feelings may not match reality, but I think, and hope, my fellow bloggers and others who read here understand.  Many of you are either living in Paris and loving it, or dreaming, as I do, of someday living there for an extended period.

I Have, I Have Not

louvre1

Louvre Pyramid

Early last year, a group of my close women friends in Sydney did the following exercise:  for ten minutes, write down a list of what you have and have not done in your life.

Write everything that comes to mind, with no editing.

 


The outcome is said to be insight into your life’s most important concerns, dreams, and patterns.

For me there were two big ‘I have nots’:

1.   I hadn’t figured out what to do about my mother’s deteriorating health and need for additional medical care. Some of this was addressed a few months later, somewhat unexpectedly, with her hospitalisation and move to assisted living, but I still want to see her often.

2.   I have not lived in Paris for any significant period of time.  Only once have I visited there for more than ten days, and that was seventeen years ago.

clive

Clive at Arc de Triomphe

I’m Working on It

Last year I left the corporate fast track that for many years tied me to limited vacation days and demanded near-24/7 availability, even when on holidays.

Since then, Clive and I have planned our travel so — despite my constant refrain, “we have no time in Paris” — we have actually increased the number of days we spend there each trip.  We’re going in the right direction.

I adore Sydney, too, and have always envisioned some kind of ‘follow the sun’ ideal, spending half the year at our home in Sydney and the other half at the apartment in Paris, enabling us to more easily visit the U.S. and England from our base in Europe.

What is life, if not work in progress?  As all families do, we juggle responsibilities, expectations of ourselves and others, and our dreams.

I am thankful to be in a position to spend fourteen days in Paris, and can’t wait to get there.

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Père Lachaise Cemetery

Hay-on-Wye, Wales
Related post
  
Family Globalisation:  It’s Personal

U.S. Airlines, Infrastructure, and Attitude

globe12Sydney

Yesterday we booked flights for our next trip to Paris, England, and the U.S.  As I’ve written about in previous posts, we have a global family, and try to see them, especially our aging parents, as often as possible.

We’re not using any U.S. airlines, and a U.S. family member asked if it wouldn’t be best to do so.  This same person, before President Obama’s inauguration, said ‘only in the U.S.’ regarding the peaceful transfer of power.

Not Only in America

Am I the only ex-pat who thinks U.S. airlines are not the best in the world?  Am I the only one who gets tired of hearing ‘only in America’ with respect to mixed race families, peaceful transition of power, democracy, and freedom?

globe_peopleI think America is a great country.  My intention isn’t to bash, though I’ve noticed through the years the first response to criticism from any source is often a howl of, “How dare you bash the greatest country on earth?”  My intention is simply to point out there’s a bigger world out there, a world with many great countries.

Some of these countries have superior airlines and infrastructure, and many have a much broader awareness of the rest of the world than exists in the U.S.

Airlines

 

Both Clive and I have travelled extensively to destinations in Asia, the U.S., and Europe.  We’re not outrageously demanding of airlines, asking only for:

·        efficient check-in and boarding

·        basic pleasant service

·        cleanliness of seating sections and loos

·        edible food

·        decent in-flight entertainment systems, not necessarily state of the art but at a minimum, screens on the back of every economy seat; i.e. not dark ages (as mentioned regarding United Airlines in my post Travel and Books, Part 1)

oldplane5

U.S. airlines lag far behind those of Asia, Australia, and Europe.  Notwithstanding everyone has a war story for any airline, broadly speaking there is no comparison of any U.S. airline to Singapore, Malaysian, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, British Airways,
or Qantas.

There are magazines and websites devoted to in-depth airline analysis.  A short Economist article on 2 February offered a comparison between recent economy flights on Emirates and US Airways (with appropriate admiration for the US Airways pilot who landed the Airbus in the Hudson River).

Based on my own experience, I recommend this article as both accurate and, in a shake-your-head-sadly way, amusing.

Infrastructure

This is a much broader topic than airlines, and along with millions of other Americans, I’m hopeful President Obama’s stimulus package will address some of the country’s most critical infrastructure priorities.

mobile_flashIn a brilliant New York Times column, Thomas Friedman wrote on 23 December 2008, “Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones.”  Kennedy is one of the worst U.S. airports, but this comparison could apply in varying degrees to a number of others, including Newark.

Friedman contrasts technology and transportation infrastructures from his trip to China and his return to the U.S.  He says, “All I could think to myself was:  If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than we are?”

Attitude and Awareness

happy_globe2What wears thin for me is the combination of the facts with the seemingly constant “we’re the greatest” attitude inside America.  I was brought up with that attitude, and I know it well.

I especially get tired of hearing the self-congratulations and accolades from people who have never had a passport or travelled and lived anywhere other than in the U.S.  I said above I think America is a great country.  I also think its superiority complex is at times quite misguided.

It seems to me there are two forces at play:

1.      Many Americans seem to have no idea how their services and infrastructure compare to the rest of the world.

2.      Yet they persist in saying, “we’re the best” without knowing ‘what else is out there’ and the basic facts of the matter.

We were in the U.S. on election day, and heard many commentators talk about Obama as ‘the leader of the free world’.  There is a large free world out there, who firstly did not vote for him and secondly, do not see him as their leader.

Back in Australia in the weeks leading up to Obama’s inauguration, we heard U.S. citizens and commentators say over and over and over again, ‘only in America’ is power transferred so peacefully.  This came out of the mouths of experienced journalists and TV anchors like Sam Donaldson, who I thought should know better.

No Excuse – So Why the Blinkers?

monitor_globeWith today’s technology and Internet news penetrating the most remote areas on earth, I don’t think there’s any excuse for Americans to wear blinkers with respect to the rest of the world.

We all see through our own experience, to be sure.  It’s natural our primary interests are close to home, and every country has problems.  But I think it would be good if more Americans acknowledged the U.S. isn’t always the best at everything.

On my first trip to Paris (and outside the U.S.) years ago, a young French man said to me, “You Americans are friendly, and inventive, and amazingly successful.  There is so much about you that we like.  But we don’t want to be you.”

This was a profound revelation to my younger self.  He didn’t think Americans were superior!  He didn’t wish he was one!  This was the first I had ever heard of that possibility.

Why I’m Sensitive to This

world_people

As an ex-pat, I’ve spent years being the ‘face of America’ to business colleagues and personal friends.

The majority of American managers and executives I worked with seemed genuinely surprised, when they visited Asia and Australia, by the high levels of technological and ‘lifestyle’ sophistication that exist outside the U.S.  Being positive about other countries is one thing.  Being amazed at how ‘civilised’ they are is quite another.  It shouldn’t be such a shock, and for locals, it borders on being offensive.

Ex-pats take the heat (e.g., about George Bush) and the praise (e.g., about Barack Obama).  When people in the U.S. say things like, “peaceful transitions only happen here” it’s embarrassing, especially if you’re sitting with friends in a free, democratic country (such as Australia, England, or France) that has a modern history of peaceful transitions.

Of course Americans aren’t all the same, and I’ve spent years defending my country of origin when it’s accused of being ignorant and insular.
I always say, “They’re not all like that.”  I know many, including regular readers of this blog, who have a more global perspective.  Unfortunately, the overwhelmingly predominant image Americans project to the rest of the world is one of insularity.

I don’t know why there are such blinkers in what Americans seem to see, but suspect it’s a chicken and egg situation.

If Americans were more aware of the rest of the world, would they have a different attitude?  Or, if they had a different attitude, would they desire to become more aware of the rest of the world?

Market Opportunity:  Fill the World News Vacuum in the U.S.

globe_globe3I think truth is on both sides.  I’ve previously written about the world news vacuum in America, and I see filling it as a significant market opportunity.

The media always says, “We give the public what they want.”  But I wonder if that’s really true.

I told Clive if I were a multi-millionaire, I’d start a 24-hour world news TV, Internet, and radio station in the U.S.  I bet Americans would watch it, starting by channel-surfing, then gradually watching more and more, even when there’s no direct U.S. involvement.  Major disasters like this weekend’s Australian bushfires appear to be the only non-U.S. events that make the news in America.

America is a great country, but some of its products, services, and infrastructure are inferior to those elsewhere in the world.  Freedom, democracy, and peaceful transitions of power are indeed worthy of celebration.  They are not unique to America.

It would be good if more Americans understood this. I’m hopeful President Obama will help take off the blinkers, and Americans will be seen in a more positive light in years to come.  I believe with all my heart this will contribute to greater peace in the world.

globe21

I realise I may get some opposing comments to this post, and if so, hope they will foster constructive discussion.

My New Netbook

two2

Sydney

Until recently, I hadn’t considered purchasing a netbook, a smaller, lighter version of a laptop.

My partner, Clive, subscribes to two Australian computer magazines, and we’ve talked on and off for some time about netbooks as an option for travel.  While Clive is a multi-media power user (I call him my IT guru), my computing demands are simple.  I use the Internet extensively for personal business and pleasure, and only need basic word processing, spreadsheet, and photograph management functionality to be productive and happy.

After casually looking at netbooks in various computer stores, I always concluded that despite being lightweight and ultra-portable, they were just too small.  That was until a few days ago, when an HP Mini 1001TU caught my eye.

“Look at this,” I said to Clive.  The screen seemed much larger than others we’d seen.  And the keys on the keyboard were full size, not the teensy ones I knew my long fingers wouldn’t like.

“I think that one is on the PC Authority A-list,” he said.  I was suddenly very, very interested in this netbook, for upcoming trips to Europe and the U.S.

“Let’s do the research,” the IT guru said.

So Many Choices

Clive is able to absorb and synthesise all the different features and specifications of various computer models.  Whether we’re talking desktops, laptops, netbooks, mobile phones, or music devices, I get overwhelmed with the number of choices available.

I wanted a model with the larger, 10” screen, full-size keys, and good price performance based on research and reviews.  For travel and moving around, I also wanted the lightest weight possible and good battery life.

The search quickly narrowed down to two.

HP Mini 1001TU and Asus Eee PC 1000H

I saw the HP first, then the Asus, which comes in white or black.  Here’s my comparison of features I care about:

·        Both:  10-inch screen (HP actually 10.2”)

·        Both:  keyboard with full-size keys

·        Both:  memory 1GB

·        Weight:  HP 1.1kg, Asus 1.45kg – plus for the HP

·        Battery life:  HP 2+ hours, Asus 6+ hours – huge plus for Asus

·        Hard disk drive:  HP 60GB, Asus 160GB – a big difference, but either is adequate for me

·        USB ports:  HP-2, Asus-3.  I don’t mind using a USB extender, but it’s one more thing to carry, so a plus for Asus.  When travelling, I use mobile Internet (which I wrote about here) a digital camera cable, a memory stick for interim backups, and a mouse and printer in Paris.

·        Look and feel:  HP very sleek, Asus in white not as flash-looking to me but has a different, ‘cool’ look

·        Price in AUD:  HP $694 after $100 cashback, Asus $791.   We shopped around and found prices for the same model varied by as much as $200.

I was leaning to the Asus, despite its higher cost and weight, because of its significant advantage in battery life.  The third USB port was also a plus.

The Importance of Individual Keys

asuskeysdoc

Asus Keyboard

The PC Authority Asus review states ‘only one major gripe – the tiny and poorly placed right Shift key’.  I’ve never used the right Shift key, so this didn’t worry me.  But I thought I’d better look more closely at both the HP and Asus keyboards before buying.

 

hpkeys1

HP Keyboard

 To my surprise, I found that on the HP keyboard, the arrow keys are reduced to half-keys.  The right Shift key, which I never use, is massive, but the up and down (and right and left) arrows, which I use a million times a day, are tiny.

When I did a hands-on in the store, I also realised the Asus keyboard has a slightly wider space below the keys, where I sometimes rest the base of my hands when typing.  It felt more comfortable.

Back to the A-List

As it turned out, the Asus model was number one on the A-list  mentioned by the IT guru.  The review says about the Asus, “Six hours of battery life is impressive (and unmatched)”.  The HP is number two, and the review says, “This is the netbook you’ll have to hide from your friends.”

I felt either model would be a winner, and decided to go with the Asus.

It’s a Girl Thing

Every desktop, laptop, and mobile phone I’ve ever had was/is basic black.  I’ve felt they were good-looking, practical, and professional.

But I left my corporate life in 2008, so thought I would start 2009 by doing something daring (for me):  buy a white netbook.

I’m so excited!  I love it already, and can’t wait to put it into a shoulder bag and set off on our next trip.

asus

Related post:  A Passion for Travel, Part 5:  Travel Technology 

PC Authority Review of Asus Eee PC 1000H
PC Authority Review of HP Mini 1001TU

Family Globalisation: A New Way to Stay Connected

3 More Things to Take, but Small, Light, and Worth It
3 More Things to Take, but Small, Light, and Worth It

Sydney

We found a new way to stay connected on our recent three-month trip.  The technology is still evolving, and we’re not sure it’s the best solution available, but it was a huge step forward in our ability to communicate, conduct personal and professional business long-distance, and stay connected to family and friends in other parts of the world.

The photo above shows the devices we purchased in the U.S., England, and France.  These are essentially mobile phones in a USB stick, using wireless technology to connect to the Internet.

We were after both convenience and security.  We tend to move around a lot on our trips, and especially on this one, we needed the ability to connect from many different locations.  Most of them didn’t have an Internet café, let alone a wireless connection available.  Even if they did, I’m leery of doing personal business on anything but our own secure laptop.  It’s not always that pleasant sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in cramped Internet cafés, and more importantly, most do not allow uploads and downloads, making it impossible to transfer documents or photographs for e-mailing to family (or adding to blog posts).

Global standards and sharing aren’t quite here yet; we travelled in three countries, which required three devices and three plans.  I’m not a technology expert (I call Clive my IT guru), but here are a few end user impressions.

 

U.S. Verizon – Fastest Connections but Annoying Monthly Plan  

Last May, we started in the U.S. by looking all over for an AT&T store, thinking that would be the way to go.  The white and yellow pages gave us numbers of stores that had closed.  After being put on endless hold by at least three different AT&T 800 numbers, we gave up and went to one of the many Verizon shops that seem to be everywhere now.

Despite the fact that the U.S. cell phone we purchased with Verizon (on the same day) is a prepaid, top-up plan, Verizon didn’t offer a similar option for wireless Internet.  The only choice was an annual subscription, and we chose the one for lowest estimated use at $63/month.  My mother had just gone into assisted living and we knew we’d be returning to New Jersey for an extended time later in the year, so we figured we’d bite the bullet, even though it meant paying for it even when we weren’t there.

As it turned out, my son used the device during the summer, after we returned to Sydney and he was going back and forth between New Jersey and Washington, D.C. before moving into his new apartment.

Of the three services we used, Verizon was the fastest, at times almost as good as a hard-wired cable connection.  But as with many Internet plans, charges skyrocket if you exceed the usage limit.  We were fine until last month, when – due to a Norton upgrade combined with our monitoring world news more than we usually do because of the global financial crisis – our usage went over the limit.  The bill went from the usual $63 to $118 for November.

And it still bugs us that there’s no prepaid/top-up Internet option, when Verizon markets and sells thousands of top-up cell phones.

 

UK “3” – Prepaid Top-Up Plan & Reasonable Download/Timeframe Limits   

In England, we walked into a Carphone Warehouse shop in Felixstowe in Suffolk, and came out ten minutes later with a “3” network device.  We paid 59 pounds for it, and it came with 15 initial free hours over 3 months.

The UK plan based on this combination of download usage and calendar time seems eminently reasonable to us.  We haven’t yet had to pay for any additional usage or time.  We used the device daily in England and Scotland, and the speed was usually slower than the U.S. Verizon connection but fast enough to get things done online without pulling your hair out in frustration while waiting for transactions to process.

We used the “3” device in the most remote places during our travels, including the Suffolk countryside and Scotland’s southern highlands.  It’s amazing to me that, even when the signal strength seemed weak, we could still connect to the Internet from seemingly everywhere.   

 

France Orange – Slow, Expensive, and Most Frustrating (if Secure) Access & Charging

In Paris, we went to a France Telecom store in the neighbourhood and bought the USB Internet stick for 69 euro.  This did not include any usage or connection time, which had to be purchased on top of the cost of the device.  In brief discussion with the saleswoman, we determined that the cost/benefit point of prepaid/top-up vs. monthly plan would be about six months.  Less than that should be cheaper to do prepaid; longer would make sense to have a standard monthly plan. 

Now I wonder.  The French charge is based solely on connection time, a maximum of 6 hours/15 days at a time for 25 euros, regardless of how much usage/downloads are done.  (They must have calculated an average user profile, or maybe this is why the service is relatively expensive.)  We regularly had to top up for another 6 hours, despite constantly disconnecting to avoid our account going lower and lower with every minute that ticked away.  Connection speed was the slowest of the three services we used, despite being in central Paris, and the main reason we had to keep purchasing more time.

Our frustration over slow speed and the need to sign on and off to limit connection time was exacerbated to the point of pulling-hair-out by the requirement to enter a random 7-character ID and 9-character password every time we connected, many with hard-to-distinguish zeroes and upper-case O’s.  Two examples:  V6DFYVN and 4OHY6SV81; V5VTB8O and BOU992R01.  Every time we purchased another six hours, we got yet another new ID and password.  There is no option to set your own; you must use the random strings provided.

 

Security Issues

I’m sure France Telecom would say their convoluted ID’s and passwords offer excellent security, and I suppose they do, from the standpoint that these devices are small and portable and would be easy to misplace or lose.  The U.S. and England devices have no ID or password required, so anyone can use them as long as they still have money on them.    

At least with the UK device, if lost or stolen, someone could only use it until the top-up runs out.  With the Verizon device, it has a number (as do the UK and France devices) similar to a U.S. cell phone number, so I think we could report any of them stolen and the number could be locked or cancelled.  However, the last words the Verizon salesman said to us were, “Don’t lose it.”

 

An Aussie Telstra Option?

We arrived home a few days ago to an article in an Australian computer magazine about our national carrier, Telstra, offering a new prepaid broadband service.  It apparently also includes international roaming in over 20 countries where Telstra has telecommunications partners.  Our guess is that this is probably subject to partner rules regarding connection and/or download time, and could likely be the equivalent of using a mobile phone in another country; i.e., pricey.  It will be interesting to see how the technology is advancing, and if global sharing or standards are coming into play.

My IT guru says it’s definitely worth investigating.  I will post his findings in due course. 

In the meantime, using these devices has been a big leap forward for us in terms of staying in touch.  It’s private, flexible, and convenient, and no longer do we have to worry about finding a decent connection somewhere.  It costs money and there are some frustrations, but it’s part of the price we pay for travel and will become part of our travel budget.  For us it’s worth every penny, pence, and euro cent.  The value of staying in touch with loved ones is priceless.

Currency Conversion Fee Class Action Lawsuit

Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, U.S.A.

On top of everything else we’re doing in the U.S., I received a formal letter stating I needed to provide additional information to the settlement administrator for the Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation lawsuit.

In an earlier post, “Why Should They Have It? How to Avoid Currency Conversion Fees,” I wrote about my longstanding practice of using a credit card while traveling, and Clive’s more cost-effective practice of using commission-free travelers’ cheques.

It turns out Clive wasn’t the only one concerned about currency fee rip-offs.

Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation Lawsuit
The issue of outrageous currency conversion fees was so serious that this lawsuit was brought forward, covering a ten-year period from February, 1996 to November, 2006. Details can be viewed at the CCFS website.

This Time It Might Be Worth It
Over the years I’ve received a number of official letters regarding class action lawsuits. I never thought I had enough at stake to warrant the tedious, time-consuming process of dredging up data and filling out forms.
In this case, for the first time ever, I thought it might be worth completing the settlement forms, given my history of using my credit card when traveling overseas.

We’ll see what happens next.

Asia 101: How Not to Get to Paris

Beijing, Tuesday morning

Why are we in China?  From Sydney, Beijing is not on the way to Paris.  It’s 17 degrees Centigrade, with sunshine and bright blue skies.  Paralympic greeters are all around us.

What’s happened so far:

Update from Paris, Tuesday night:  the Air France flight from Beijing to Paris was fine.  Our journey time was 42 hours, door to door.  As ever, I’m overjoyed to be here.

  • overly-optimistic flight itinerary, with only a 75-minute stopover in Singapore (lesson learned:  never again)
  • Qantas delay in Sydney.  Classic case of 3 bags loaded in error, no passengers attached to them, so had to be off-loaded
  • One hour late arrival in Singapore.  Air France won’t wait 15 minutes despite 50+ connecting passengers.
  • Routing through Beijing “best” of alternatives offered by ground crew at Changi Airport

Changi Airport, Singapore

I’ve always liked Changi Airport.  It’s much like Singapore itself:  well-ordered and clean, with excellent choice and quality of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Western food; enough shopping to keep you busy for days (including a favourite book stop); and state of the art technology and customer service.  It’s the first airport I can remember that had free Internet everywhere.

While waiting to learn our fate last night, just looking at the Changi arrival and departure boards reminded me it’s truly at the crossroads of Asia.  Flights to and from around the world arrive and depart 24/7.  From my first business trip to Singapore over 12 years ago, I was hooked.  The names still excite me, whether relatively close, like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, or farther away, like Shanghai or Dubai.

Asia 101

Singapore is to Asia as London is to Europe, a sort of “Asia 101,” especially for Australians and Americans.  It’s a good introduction, because almost everyone speaks English and the central city retains its Asian flair, despite being Westernised to the point that one of our Australian friends said, “I used to like Singapore, until they turned it into Chatswood.”  Chatswood is a Sydney suburb known for its Asian population and vast shopping malls.

Singapore and its airport may not have the funky, developing character of other Asian capitals, and its spotlessness and efficiency reflect its tightly-controlled government state.  But it’s easy to get around, and I’ve always felt safe here, whether arriving with my family at a peak travel time, or by myself on a business trip, alone in the middle of the night.

In the wee hours of this morning, the airport was well-lit, shops open, and staff visible and walking around.\  We weren’t the only passengers, either; a large group bound for Rome was also departing after 1am. 

A Sensual Impression

Changi even feels like Singapore’s hot, steamy self.  From the moment you get off the plane, you can sense the humidity in the air, on your skin, and as you breathe it in, along with the heavy, floral-y smell of the tropics.  I love coming upon the central gathering area, with its stands of purple orchids and green ferns, and sounds of softly-falling water.  In the middle of hundreds of thousands of criss-crossing travellers, it’s an oasis of beauty and peace, if only for a few minutes.

Orchid Garden, Changi Airport Site Photo

 

There used to be a little Jim Thompson silk shop at Changi, where I always wandered around and once splurged on a zippered make-up bag that cost $34 Australian dollars.  It was beige silk with a cobalt blue elephant print, luxuriously soft inside and out.  I delighted in using it every day until I wore it out.

Exception to the Rule

Unfortunately, our experience at Changi this trip was one of utter frustration.  It began with the discovery that although we disembarked the Qantas plane 15 minutes before the Air France (AF) departure time, AF had closed the flight.  We are believers in on-time departure in most cases, but have also understood the situation when we’re due to depart and a pilot announcement comes on about waiting a few minutes for a large group from a connecting flight.

Singapore Airlines ground staff was left with 50 tired, disgruntled passengers, and was unable to cope.  When one French passenger complained, the response was a shrug and, “that’s Air France.”  As time ticked away and nothing happened, it became clear to us that waiting passively was not an option.  It was only because we asserted ourselves that we got tickets and boarding passes for the first flight to Beijing.   

In the interest of not turning this post into a whingey, whiney recitation of every detail that followed, suffice it to say that in both Singpore and Beijing, our group was led all over creation and back again, to waiting areas, ticketing, check-in, passport, customs, baggage, transit areas, transit busses, and airport trains.  As happens in these situations, it became quite amusing at times – like when, with another couple, we practically had to tackle one of the Chinese ‘leaders’ we were following, so she would slow down enough to allow the rest of the group to catch up.

Despite the uncharacteristic inefficiency of the ground staff in Singapore, we did have the unexpected pleasure of the always-outstanding cabin service of Singapore Airlines on the flight from Singapore to Beijing.  If we had only known we’d end up here, we would have gotten a visa and spent a few days in the city.

Welcome to China

We have a 5-hour stopover at Beijing Airport, where I’m writing this.  The terminal is very modern with striking architecture and soaring ceilings, clearly updated for the Olympics.  We felt relatively confident we’d eventually get boarding passes for the Air France flight, and we did.  The Chinese staff are still in friendly mode, with Olympics just finished and Paralympics starting soon.   

I did however try to access WordPress, my blog host, from inside Beijing Airport, and while I could reach other Internet sites such as International Herald Tribune, I wasn’t able to view, let alone get into, my blog or anyone else’s.  I don’t think I was doing anything wrong, so it was most likely “Internet restrictions.”  It was a reminder that personable, English-speaking staff notwithstanding, we still live by their rules.

Our group is significantly smaller in Beijing.  Several members estimated at least 20 of the original 50 didn’t make the flight due to the dithering in Singapore.    

Onward to Air France and — joy of joys — Paris.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Update from Paris, Tuesday night:  the Air France flight from Beijing to Paris was fine.  Our journey time was 42 hours, door to door.  As ever, I’m overjoyed to be here. 

Why Should They Have It? How to Avoid Currency Fees

Sydney

“Why should they have it?”  says my partner, Clive.  They = those who charge outrageous currency fees.  It = our money. 

Clive taught me a simple method, which I think is quite clever, for saving currency fees at both ends of a trip.  When we were planning our first overseas journey together a few years ago, he said, “I have to get travellers cheques.”  Travellers cheques?!? I thought they were a thing of the (distant) past.

The Fee Approach

My financial approach to travel used to be:  1) use mileage-award credit cards as much as possible, to both get the miles and have an automatic record of expenditures; 2) get just enough foreign currency at the departure airport to have as backup at the destination, if needed for initial ground transportation or incidentals; and 3) have an ATM card on hand for emergency cash.  And it’s easy to do wire transfers before a trip.

Depending on which cards are used in which country, my approach involved paying often-exorbitant currency exchange fees.  These are charged by credit card companies on each purchase, exchange agencies who have a captive market (and offer horrendous rates) at the airport, and banks, who always know how to maximise their take.  Wire transfers are convenient, but invoke fees at both the sending and receiving ends.

The Free Approach

Clive’s approach, on the other hand, is to largely pay in cash as he goes.  He keeps a basic record of expenses, not relying on credit card statements, and when he gets home, he has no bills to pay.  He doesn’t have any foreign credit cards, and only uses his local credit card overseas when there’s absolutely no choice.  This means he avoids both fees and poor credit card exchange rates.

There are two design points for saving fees at both ends: 

  • Many banks and credit card companies offer, or include as an automatic benefit, commission-free travellers cheques.  I had always ignored this, since I hadn’t seen or used travellers cheques since a family trip to the U.S. west in 1994.  Clive gets commission-free travellers cheques, in euros, pounds, or American dollars, as part of a standard credit card plan with one of Australia’s major banks.
  • Having a bank account and ATM card in the destination country, which many ex-pats do; the ideal is for the overseas bank to have a good network and ATMs where you’ll be travelling

Then simply do the following:

1)   Estimate amount of foreign currency needed

2)   Get that amount in commission-free travellers cheques, at the bank – which usually has the best exchange rate, too

3)   When you arrive at your destination, deposit travellers cheques — fee-free — into your account there

4)   Use foreign ATM card as needed to withdraw cash – also fee free based on bank limits (unlimited in England)

I’ve been amazed at how easy and cost-effective this approach is.  After years of putting everything on a mileage-award credit card, it seemed strange and almost wrong to me to pay cash for so much – we weren’t getting any miles! – and it had been years since I’d paid cash at restaurants and hotels.

But I learned quickly that it worked fine:  we don’t carry large amounts of cash on hand, we’re not constantly looking for somewhere to exchange travellers cheques, and we just get what we need from an ATM and pay as we go.

Giving Ourselves More

Like most people, we try to work within a travel budget.  I’ve also learned we don’t have to be fanatics, but with a little foresight, we make worthwhile savings (which we can spend on us!).  We also get better exchange rates at the bank; on our last trip we noticed the rate at Sydney Airport was almost ten per cent worse than at the bank.  It’s become a no-brainer to trade last-minute convenience for saving money and avoiding rip-off rates and fees.  And Clive has shown me there’s an over-emphasis on using credit cards to get miles, when sometimes it’s simply not cost-effective.

Initially I thought this approach was more work, but it was only a matter of changing my routine.  If you’re interested in saving money and avoiding currency exchange fees, it might be worth looking into commission-free travellers cheques and deposits into your foreign account.

This has become a key item on our travel planning checklist.

When it comes to your money, why should they have it?

Travel Planning: Vote Early

Australia Ballot Papers for Manly Local Government Election

Australian Ballot Papers for Manly Local Government Election

Sydney

How important is voting?  Today we went to the Returning Officer of the Electoral District of Manly to get our ballot papers for the September 13 local government election.

Clive and I share the longstanding belief that it’s a privilege and a responsibility to vote, whether in person or long-distance.  We’ll be away for the this election and we’re leaving before the pre-poll voting centres open, so we need to vote by post ahead of time.

The biggest differences for me between voting in the U.S. and voting in Australia are:

  • in the federal election, voting is for a party, not a person; the party with the most elected members to the House of Representatives decides who will be Prime Minister
  • there are multiple paper ballots, and some are huge – the one on top in the photo is about a foot high and two feet wide, for a local election
  • the process is much shorter and quieter than in the U.S.  
  • voting is compulsory in Australia; there are accepted reasons for not voting; e.g., illness or emergency, but not feeling like it, not liking any of the candidates, or not being interested in politics are not acceptable; and if you don’t vote, there are penalties

To be technically correct, it’s compulsory to show up, have your name checked off, receive the paper ballots, and put them into the appropriate ballot boxes.  You can leave the ballots blank or write in anything you wish, but you must receive the ballots and put them into a ballot box, or in our case this week, post them in.

In the current local election, the fine for not voting and not having an acceptable reason starts at $55.  If you fail to respond or pay the fine, an additional $50 fine is charged, and if that doesn’t get a response, there’s a potential cancellation of your motor vehicle license.  New South Wales discovered some time ago that tying unpaid fines to license and registration renewal was an effective way to collect large sums.

For our local election, the ballot for 11 councillor positions has 58 names across 9 columns.  There are 3 smaller ballots:  1 with 9 candidates for Mayor, and 2 with Yes/No questions, one a Constitutional Referendum Paper about reducing the number of councillors from 12 to 9, including the mayor, and one a Council Poll Paper about a 4.4% Climate Change Levy to minimise the impact of climate change on Manly.

The whole process of voting and participating in the process feels different in Australia; everyone votes, it’s expected, it’s done without much fanfare or drama, and even with all the usual jokes about write-in comments and candidates, the overall ‘psyche’ is – there’s an election, so you vote.

The Australian Electoral Commission reported national voter turnout for Australia’s 2007 federal election was about 95%.    

A quick Google search led me to the Washington Post , which reported turnout for the U.S. 2004 Presidential election as the best it had been since 1968, about 61%.

Clive has mixed feelings about being in the U.S. in the run-up to this year’s Presidential election.  On one hand, he’s dreading the blanket coverage which excludes all other news, so he’s identified additional ways such as Internet television to ensure we still get world news while there.  On the other hand, he’s looking forward to witnessing first-hand the hype that surrounds the process.

Voting early is included in our travel planning checklist, which I describe further in “A Passion for Travel, Part 3:  Travel Planning Checklist”.